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Hillary Clinton May Have Just Signaled a Major Campaign Focus with Ferguson Leaders

Clinton may be able to discuss race and criminal justice in this country in a way black candidates and politicians can't, and could push the issue to the forefront this election cycle.
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Hillary Clinton told community leaders in Ferguson, Missouri today that she is in favor of common sense gun laws, automatic voter registration, early childhood education, and economic policies that narrow the wealth gap between white and black Americans, in a speech that highlighted the attention she will pay to racial issues during the 2016 presidential election.

Clinton spoke to the group of community leaders as well as activists who were involved in the demonstrations following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in the summer of 2014. The meeting, hosted by pastor Traci Blackmon, a community leader and member of the Ferguson Commission, at her church in Florissant, focused on a discussion about race and inequality.


Clinton called the shooting of nine members of a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, last week an act of "racist terrorism," and said she wants police to respect communities they serve. She also gave examples of racial inequality, building on those that she discussed at a speech last week that brought up topics as far-ranging as mortgage rates, median wealth, police interactions, prison sentences, and school segregation. Clinton also included the phrase "all lives matter" in her speech, which drew some criticism on social media because of its use as a retort to the "Black Lives Matter" phrase and movement that has been prevalent since Brown's death at the hands of a local police officer.

The former Secretary of State has been more frank in discussing race and racism — criticizing "well-meaning, open-minded white people" who still harbor fear at the sight of a "young black man in a hoodie" — than either her Republican opposition in the race for the White House or her former boss, President Barack Obama.

Charlton McIlwain and Stephen Maynard Caliendo, political scientists who run the Project on Race in Political Communication, say that Clinton may be able to discuss race and criminal justice in this country in a way black candidates and politicians can't, and could push the issue to the forefront this election cycle.

"I think it's important, whether we at the end of the day look at it and say she's only doing it to gain some strategic campaign advantage or not, the fact is she's the one candidate stepping up and saying I'm not simply going to be responding to these issues or incidents like this, whether it's Ferguson or South Carolina, but that I'm going to step out front and be a leader on these particular issues and champion policies around them and talk about them," McIlwain said.


Clinton has been able to discuss race from a position of privilege, both said.

"Race historically in this country is very connected to blackness. The tendency, I think, is to see anyone talking about race as the 'black candidate,' and that has negative consequences. So the question then, is if you have someone who's not African American like Hillary Clinton championing the same causes, will people racialize her in the same way? And I think there's a chance that may not happen," McIlwain, a professor at NYU's Steinhardt school, told VICE News.

"It's white privilege," Caliendo said. "That's the way it works: white people can talk about race without having it chalked up to being black."

Related: The State Department Will Start Releasing Hillary Clinton's Emails June 30

As for the Republican candidates, talking about race is "dangerous" to their campaigns, he said.

"It's a crowded field and they're going to need people who come out in primaries and caucuses who tend to be disproportionately to the right on the ideological spectrum," he said.

And though her interest in speaking to the national conversation about race may be sincere, it is also likely strategic, Caliendo and McIlwain said. Clinton is likely trying to recreate the same coalition that elected Obama in 2008 and 2012, made up of young people, women, and blacks who turned out to vote in higher proportions than previous elections.


"She will have to leverage that to motivate people to get out and vote. Not to go out and vote for her versus a Republican, but to make sure they show up at the polls," Caliendo said. "It's not about winning the hearts and minds of Americans, because she'll likely already do that, but will they show up on Election Day?"

P.J. Brendese, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, pointed out that Clinton may not have an easy path to winning the votes, in part because her husband passed maximum sentence policies that resulted in an enormous boom in the inmate population in the US.

In her speech today, Clinton addressed the connection between race and mass incarceration in America.

"One of the key problems is the disparity in sentencing and mass incarceration for nonviolent offenses and minor problems that should be diverted away from the criminal justice system," she said. "We need to do more at the earliest stages, to get back to a true juvenile justice system as opposed to what we now have, which is just another funnel into the adult prison system. We have to do more to set up the criteria so that African American men are not sent to prison for doing the very same thing that a white man of the same age, the same background, the same jurisdiction does."

Clinton said she would use the federal government to incentivize local and state governments to "change the way they impose criminal justice," and criticized the for-profit industry of prisons.

If Clinton makes racial issues and criminal justice reform a centerpiece of her campaign — even if it's just to inspire voters to turn out for her — it will likely become part of her agenda and could translate into meaningful legislation, both Caliendo and Brendese said.

"This is one thing that I think, the criminal justice reform part of the race, she might be able to do that Barack Obama hasn't been able to do," Caliendo said. " Every time he tried to do something on race it would be dismissed as something by the black man, so didn't have that privilege to leverage, but she could do that. If she does make it a centerpiece of her campaign, it's going to be very difficult for her to ignore it in office."

"I think anytime a candidate of her stature repeatedly invokes a controversial issue like race and seeks to address it, it does tend to compel other candidates to have to speak to those themes," Brendese said.